Last weekend, Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of the Ernest Cline bestseller Ready Player One hit theaters with a frenzy of pop culture color. There are have been plenty of reviews for this film already, many positive, and it brought in, according Variety, $181.2 million in the global box office over its opening weekend.
For me, Ready Player One was one of the most original and refreshing science fiction books I have read in ages. Set in a dystopian future, both the book and movie follow the premise of a group of young people’s race to inherit control over the virtual world “The Oasis” by completing a trio of pop-culture centric challenges. I never thought it would be made into a movie, due to the immense licensing costs it would entail, but when it was announced Spielberg would take on the project I thought “problem solved.” It was going to be full circle of a filmmaker celebrating a book that celebrates one of his and many other filmmakers’ defining decades.
As such, I wanted to give as honest a review as I could for the movie based on the book called “the holy grail of pop culture” in the movie teaser and praised by Spielberg at 2017 San Diego Comic-Con as “the most amazing flash-forward and flashback at the same time to a decade I was really involved in.”
My family spent the entire weekend gearing up for and experiencing Ready Player One on the big screen, and I realized there are really three ways to look at it: as a standalone film, as a book adaptation, and as an immersive time-traveling experience.
As a Movie:
Before I even saw the movie, I noticed the poster seemed to play tribute to the designs of artist Drew Struzan, who created some of the ’80s (and later eras) most iconic movie posters from Back to the Future to the Indiana Jones adventures. This was a good indication to me this film’s style had an eye for detail.
The movie itself was visually amazing, and filled with so many Easter eggs and references from the ’70s and ’80s to present day pop culture, it was hard to see them all. It took everything I had not to constantly point things out to everyone in my family with annoying “oh, look it’s Serenity” outbursts. Obviously this has become a thing, since I’ve run across various online movie sites that have gathered lists of up to 198 pop culture references found in the movie, so far. It is such a banal cliché to say a film has something for everyone, but in a solely visual sense, there really was. My 8-year-old noticed Hello Kitty right away, my 15-year-old loved seeing Jason Todd pop in, and my husband thought the Halo soldiers were a great touch. It was like being invited to the most awesome theme park imaginable. Plus, we can’t overlook the tribute to another filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis.
Everything went by in such a flash (yes, I think Flash was there too, if you don’t blink) it was overwhelming and at actually kind of frustrating.
As a parent, I will warn there is one pretty eerie sequence involving The Shining. My 8-year-old joined Shoto in his need to watch this through her fingers. This didn’t detract from her loving the rest of the film, and she is even asking to see it again. I urge discretion before viewing with anyone under 14, although there were many 10-and-under viewers attending the show.
However many crazy, wonderful visuals and sounds were tossed in, there were times when paying attention to the actual characters and story was a secondary to watching the surrounding world. This is where I felt the movie lacked. We got to know a little about the young characters of the “High Five” group, but not enough to really feel an attachment. This isn’t the fault of the actors at all, as all five of them (Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao) did an excellent job. The need to keep things moving made it hard to really get emotionally involved with them.
This wasn’t the case for the two “grown up” actors behind James Halliday and Ogden “Og” Morrow (Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg, respectively), who were able to settle in more to their characters via flashbacks, and let us see what made them tick. I have to say this is one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen from Rylance. I’ve known people like Halliday who are these wonderful minds locked into their self-imposed awkward isolation. Rylance nailed it with both sympathy and admiration.
In summary, this isn’t a movie you want to see if you’re looking to get to know the characters, but it is one you must see if you want to take an amazing, original, and heart-rate-increasing ride.
What about those who haven’t read the book? One of the pre-show shorts we watched showed Cline’s own favorite reaction by someone watching the trailer. In the clip, a vlogger who had no previous knowledge of the book went from skepticism to interest to outright excitement seeing The Iron Giant, Freddie Kruger, and a DeLorean in one preview.
“I don’t know what Ready Player One is,” he said, “but I’m already loving it!”
As a Book Adaptation:
Here’s where many of my criticisms on the film as a movie come in, but not as many as you would expect. The primary one is, as I mentioned earlier, is we don’t get to feel more for the characters, who were much more developed in the book. In the book, we learned more about Helen’s (Aech) life story, and the fate of Daito (I won’t share here) drew some extra reason to want to see villain Sorrento’s fall.
Even the explosion in The Stacks, although an exciting point in the movie, didn’t pack as much punch as it does in the book, where we learned a little more about the humanity contained within, good and bad, as well as Wade’s connection to them. I think this was the main reason I felt the emotional appeal of the film fell flat in places. The movie’s conclusion did give us a little more positive light on the fate of the world than the book did, and that was a satisfying addition.
The changes in the challenges, as well as fun surprise involving the “Curator,” actually worked for me. It gave me more things to discover. The initial challenge, involving a game of Joust, made for an absorbing read, but I can understand how a pop-culture-filled road race is a better fit for the visual medium of film than Parzival playing another video game. They also divided situations that happened to Watts among the other main characters as well so things would move faster. This included seeing Samantha (Art3mis) land in the Indentured Employee Induction Center, called a Loyalty Center in the movie, instead of Wade.
There are plenty of shout-outs to what is featured in the book if you look closely at both The Oasis and the real world. Aech’s Rush t-shirt is a fun example. I’m usually one who wants movies to be as true to the book as possible, but since Cline had heavy involvement in both movie and book, I could detect his own signature in the adaptation.
Let’s be completely frank. The book is so good, there is no way the movie could ever live up to the story. This might be a good thing, as it may encourage more people to read it. I’m hoping this adaption will inspire those who haven’t read it to pick up the novel. There are still plenty of surprises found only in the book.
As an Immersive Experience:
This is where Ready Player One really stood out from every other film we’ve seen this year: it has given families and theaters a chance to celebrate the imagination of the past with the innovations of today and tomorrow and bring generations together.
Our local Alamo Drafthouse cinema did a whole Ready Player One opening weekend event, and we attended both days. The Friday night events featured local artists helping us make buttons of our own designs or with comic book pages, and we interacted with nine-food LED “robot” stilt walker costumes from a group called RoboTRON, which made me think of the video game of the same name. My teenager couldn’t wait to share the robot family “selfie” taken by one of the robots.
We then tried out some of the latest Virtual Reality games brought in by a group called Glitch. While my youngest enjoyed a job simulator where she made sandwiches like a restaurant owner and played with virtual fidget spinners, my teen hunted zombies in an old warehouse. Even though she loves first person games like the Batman: Arkham Knight and the Assassin’s Creed series, she called it quits on the VR game, because the intensity of “actually knowing there’s something behind you” was pretty creepy. Since we were going to see a movie dealing with total immersion into another world the next day, this was the perfect activity get them excited about it.
The next after noon, before the movie, the theatre held an ’80s-themed Easter Egg hunt (celebrating not only the holiday weekend, but the Easter Egg-filled Ready Player One universe). My youngest won a Gremlins t-shirt and my oldest won a $25 gift certificate for answering an ’80s trivia question. I had no idea she knew what Miami Vice was. An old Atari console was set up, employees were in ’80s garb, and the flat screen televisions in the adjoining taproom were blasting old MTV videos (when it was actually “music” television), ’80s commercials, and cartoons like Jem and The Holograms.
One of the things Alamo is known for is their curated pre-show content, and Cline himself took part in this as well, as we saw a short piece of him showing off his real life version of “Parzival car” mashup of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Ghostbusters’s Ecto-1, Knight Rider’s KITT, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, the last of which might be seeing some renewed popularity thanks to Wade. There was also the original Back to the Future teaser, a hilarious Pac-Man themed challenge in a Japanese game show, a look at some early 1990s virtual reality, and 1980s interviews with Spielberg. Those who were really into the theme would have attended special showings of the classic films that inspired Cline’s book, picked by Cline himself, throughout the month of March. All these extras and activities went a long way to get us invested in this world by the time the film started.
After the film, we discovered the official movie site had a “Join the Quest” challenge with a few featured playable arcades games like Joust, Root Beer Tapper, and Defender, as well as original games. Our kids, who have grown up in the world of impressive CGI effects, loved the simplicity and challenge of these heavily pixelated games. Everyone talked both about who they would be in The Oasis, and the best way to win at games like Sinistar for the rest of the evening.
I recommend watching some ’80s movies and music videos, playing some old outdated video games or table top trivia challenges, and sharing stories of your own childhood, no matter what decade you grew up in, before seeing this with your family.
Summing up, as a movie it was colorful, fast, and exciting; as an adaption it wasn’t exact but it worked; and as an experience it was great way to enjoy a nostalgia-filled outing with your family or friends.
In addition to Cline having a hand in creating the movie’s screenplay, there was one thing Ready Player One, despite its changes from the original text, despite its flaws as a movie, I think it completely lived up to both Cline’s and Halliday’s the love of creativity, writing, and world-building. In a way the gigantic undertaking of adapting Ready Player One was successful, because like The Oasis, it can be anything you want it to be.
If you’ve already read the book and seen the movie, GeekMom Melissa Ringinger shares her experiences and recommendations with another way to enjoy it, read by Wil Wheaton via Audible.
Those who want to dive more into the music featured in the film or book (or that helped inspire them), can find a Ready Player One playlist from Skip Owens at GeekDad.